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Tuesday, 25 November 1986
Page: 3691

Mr ROCHER(9.35) —I would like to add my congratulations and compliments to the honourable member for Bowman (Mr Keogh) and his Standing Committee on Procedure, although I do not necessarily agree with everything it said or recommended. There is no doubt that the Committee has worked assiduously in arriving at a set of recommendations which have excited the interest of the Parliament, and that is something that is difficult to do at the end of a long session.

Firstly, I would like to comment on one point the honourable member for Grayndler (Mr Leo McLeay) made when he referred to the Opposition being dominated by its Executive. He was speaking in the context of the times allocated for making contributions in this Parliament and I presume in our various committee and party room meetings. As to the first of those allusions let me say that the Executive does not dominate Opposition members in terms of their contributions and speaking times in this place. Our greatest problem in opposition, as I suppose it has been since time immemorial with all oppositions, is getting an opportunity to make a contribution. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, will be only too aware in carrying out your official duties of the speaking lists which contain the names of a number of my colleagues on this side of the House who have not been given the opportunity to debate a specific issue. In saying that I do not refer only to situations where the guillotine has been applied but perhaps I will come back to that a little later.

The Committee referred to the total hours of sitting and arrived at a certain conclusion by way of recommendation. It arrived at a certain set of figures using the current provisions. The Committee pointed out that over the years 1981-1985 there has been an average of 56 sitting days in this Parliament, or 14 weeks if we convert that figure into a four-day sitting week. But what it failed to remember is that in 1983 there was a general election. The Parliament did not sit until May of that year, with the exception of one day for constitutional reasons. However, that has been lumped in. In 1984 there was another election-a premature one, I might add, but that is history-and that was called some time in September if I remember correctly. So the Parliament did not sit from the end of September until the following February. Yet the Committee is using those figures as a basis for saying, `Well, if we recommend and insist upon 20 sitting weeks for this chamber, that will be better than what we averaged over those four or five years'. That argument is nonsense for reasons that I have given.

It really becomes a matter of whether, as the Special Minister of State (Mr Young) suggested, the Parliament sits longer and therefore encourages the Government to introduce more legislation-heaven forbid, that is probably impossible; it would be beyond the Government's resources-or we debated some of the matters which at present never come on for debate. The history of this Parliament and of previous parliaments shows that we do not get the opportunity to debate legislation fully. We sometimes get a full contribution in a second reading debate. As often as not we do not get an opportunity at the Committee stage. Some of this legislation has been very complex. I need not go over that, but we saw last week the identity card legislation guillotined through, denying honourable members with genuine opinions the opportunity to express them-chopped off, certainly with no chance to look at individual clauses. That will rank in infamy with exactly the same set of circumstances that happened at about this time in 1985 when the Government guillotined the Australian Bill of Rights Bill through this chamber. I was prescient enough, if I might blow my own bags, to say at the time that the Government would regret that, because the Senate dealt with it rather well and kept it on the boil until such time as the Hawke Government was embarrassed into letting that legislation lapse. That could very well happen with the identity card legislation.

So we simply are not getting the opportunity in opposition to debate legislation. This applies also to honourable members on the Government's back bench, although they will be constrained in the extent to which they might confirm or deny my understanding of their discontent. We certainly rarely, if ever, get the opportunity to discuss or debate ministerial statements in this chamber. The Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones), who is at the table, will understand what I am saying. It is a fact that in the area of his complex ministry some of my colleagues of a scientific bent would like the opportunity to discuss and debate matters of very great importance which fall within his ministerial responsibility to improve their knowledge and to improve the understanding of the people of Australia who are interested.

Mr White —Such as the member for McPherson.

Mr ROCHER —The honourable member for McPherson (Mr White) could make a great contribution in some aspects of science. Noting that, the honourable member for Stirling (Mr Ronald Edwards) has the gall to say: `We never address issues in this place'. We never get the chance to address issues in this place. We are denied the opportunity. We get a chance to express an opinion if we can get it within the Standing Orders in a second reading debate or perhaps at the Committee stage but, whereas we could address issues raised in ministerial statements, that procedure simply does not exist any longer. Those few statements that are listed on the Notice Paper for debate are scrubbed at the end of every sitting period. As honourable members know, they are gone through en bloc and a whole raft of items and reports is removed. Papers in respect of which motions to take note of them have been moved are removed en bloc. That will happen first thing on the first day we come back next year; if not then, at least in the first week. So we simply do not get the opportunity to debate them. Also, the process of ministerial statements has now been supplanted by the technique of Ministers, in answer to dorothy dix questions, virtually answering questions in the form of what would once have been a statement to this Parliament. I know that in the more candid moment of my colleagues opposite they would agree with what I am saying. I do not blame the Ministers because it seems that the Leader of the House simply will not afford Ministers the time to make those statements.

Let me point out at this stage that the Government-no matter what we say in this place and no matter how we amend Standing Orders-has the right to suspend Standing Orders. We can come up with the greatest formula in the world, we can have a standing committee-which, incidentally, I argue with as a concept-deciding in a bipartisan way how the business of the chamber will be conducted, but that goes for nothing when the Government finds it has a program it wants to get through and moves for the suspension of Standing Orders. That is perfectly understandable, but it means that all our work and all our thinking has gone for nothing. Nowhere is that more apparent than in recent history. At the instigation of the honourable member for Perth (Dr Charlesworth), we have had, for better or worse, an approved sitting period of two weeks on and two weeks off for some time now. I am not quite sure of my figures on this, but on at least five occasions that arrangement has been abandoned. The Leader of the House has said: `Too bad, chaps. We are going back to the three-week pattern'. Honourable members should remember that the pattern is more onerous now than it was on the three weeks on, one week off basis. So we get three weeks, sometimes under very arduous conditions. I do not want to make too much of that because, like the honourable member for Stirling, we are all volunteers and if we do not like it we can get out of the place. That is not to say that we cannot make constructive comments as to how we might change things for the better.

Mr Ronald Edwards —Oh, come on, Allan.

Mr ROCHER —The honourable member for Stirling talked about the boiler breaking down in a sugar plant. He made, if I might say, the stupid analogy that we do not call in the management if the boiler breaks down. Of course we do not call in the management; we have the workers here. The point I was making, in an exchange with the honourable member for Perth, is that it is not the senior management that is called into this place to keep quorums; it is the donkeys such as the honourable member and I who sit on the back benches. We are the fellows who fill the quorums and we are the division fodder. We are not the senior management, I hasten to advise the honourable member for Stirling and the honourable member for Perth. So let us not kid ourselves in that regard and let us not make silly analogies as did the honourable member for Stirling.

Business programming in this place is, should be and always will be responsibility of the government of the day. We might, if we apply ourselves, persuade the government of the day to do its work and organise the affairs of this House a little better. In respect of private members' opportunity I think the Committee has been innovative. I would certainly like to see time set aside for private members' business, for an experimental period-for 12 months perhaps, or six months if it is preferred-to see how it works out. We must remember-I am sure the honourable member for Bowman understands this better than most-that acceptance of that is dependent on a trade-off with some amended times for adjournment debates. One is dependent on the other. Allowing for that, I think it is worth a try. I think it is something that we could very well experiment with. I must say I worry a little bit about losing the adjournment debate because, although 1 1/2 minutes gives honourable members a chance to state a case, it must be a very brief case and certainly there is not long enough to make a case in the way one would given the opportunity in a grievance debate.

On the matter of presentation of reports, of course, the Government decides what reports will be presented. The Opposition may react by moving that the House take note of the paper. At all times and even under these arrangements, that procedure will remain very much in the hands of the Government. On the matter of legislation committees, let me say that if we go to such a system I would favour a very close look at what happens in the Palace of Westminster. My limited experience with committees in the Senate would lead me to believe that that is probably not as simple as it sounds. Previous experience in this place suggests that it is not as easy to make work as might be suggested by the Committee. On the matter of the reading of speeches, let me say this: Having had experience in the other place, which has a standing order similar to that proposed for this place, I have seen the Chair-and I would cry for you, Mr Deputy Speaker, to be in this position-having to decide who is reading a speech and who is not.

Mr Jull —Copious notes.

Mr ROCHER —My friend knows the words only too well. How can a man in the Chair decide who is reading and who is not reading a speech in this place? I make no secret of the fact that I will read in this place if I feel the need to do it. If I have to talk about international monetary institutions and debate our contribution to them I have to. I have to read to refer to the relationships between the World Bank or International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the International Monetary Fund, the International Development Agency and the International Fiscal Association, and their interlinked arrangements and their interwoven shareholding. I have to use notes because I do not know which is doing what. If a Minister delivers his second reading speech off the cuff, I will debate off the cuff. When a Minister delivers a prepared second reading speech, backed up by all the resources at the disposal of government, by the advisory staff, and expects a reasonable, even-handed debate from members of this Opposition, he has to give them the same terms. We will prepare and do our work at great length.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Cowan) — Order! The honourable member's time has expired.